The Wine-ification of Spirits

A growing number of spirits producers—making everything from vodka to liqueurs to American whiskey—have begun to explore how variables like variety and vintage impact the character of spirits. Kara Newman on how values once reserved for wine are being assimilated into the world of booze production.

Is it possible to anticipate a 2014 vodka release with the same enthusiasm reserved for the latest vintage of a cru Beaujolais from a cult winemaker?

Spirits producers seem to think so. Instead of focusing on consistency above all else—long considered the greatest virtue in spirits production—a small but growing number of producers are embracing the year-to-year (if not batch-to-batch) variability of the raw materials that go into making spirits. Unlike wine, whose connection to the earth is drilled into the minds of consumers every step of the way, spirits have long been disconnected from their raw materials, viewed as highly industrialized products stripped of soul during the distillation process. Slowly, quietly, this is changing in some pockets of the industry.

Producers are beginning re-emphasizing the individuality of casks and bottlings. In some cases, that means a closer taste of the fruits, vegetables or grains that go into the still or the alchemy that takes place in the barrel. They’re also starting to talk, with more frequency, about “environmental factors”—meaning both how weather affects crops, as well as the uncontrolled temperature and humidity within the spirits’ aging environment.

Consider, for example, gin and liqueur maker Greenhook Ginsmiths, which has produced a vintage-dated beach plum gin liqueur since 2012. A side-by-side tasting of all three vintages illustrates just how wide the range can be. The freshly-bottled 2014 shows the brightest purple hue, the most fruit-forward flavor, as well as the most pronounced heat. By comparison, the 2013 is a touch sweeter, with a figgy, winter-spice quality due, in part, to oxidization in the bottle (Greenhook is one of the few to eschew “sparging,” a technique that injects carbon dioxide into the head space between the liquid and bottle closure to prevent oxidization), while the 2012 has a subtly rich, cooked-plum note.

“The first year, these variations were a happy accident,” acknowledges Greenhook co-founder Steven DeAngelo. “But after that, it was a deliberate choice.” Embracing these year-to-year differences nods to the fact that the quality of the plum harvest can change— just like wine grapes—and the producer has no control over that. “It can be very ripe, toward a cherry note,” says DeAngelo. “Or we can get green fruit, which can be bitter and acidic like cranberry.” Though consistent fruit quality probably would be ideal to any producer, it’s a deliberately artisan stance to acknowledge the variations in the raw materials, instead of using mechanization to force it to all level out.

Vodka producers are also playing up the agricultural products—potatoes, grains—that they use. Swedish vodka-maker Karlsson’s has been one of the front-runners, releasing vintage-dated, single-varietal vodkas—but only when the potato crop warrants it (i.e., when it’s particularly flavorful and interesting). The 2010 and 2011 vintages showcased the 2008 and 2009 potato harvests, respectively. The 2010 was made from Old Swedish Red potatoes and the 2011 from Solist Virgin. After skipping a couple of years, September 2014 will see another vintage-dated bottling, the first to feature Princess potatoes.

Will we ever see a broader spectrum of consumers anticipate single-year spirits the way they do annual wine releases? It looks increasingly possible, though it’s likely to remain a relatively small segment of the market. Still, it’s heartening to know that a growing number of spirits makers are willing to showcase how the vagaries of agriculture and weather and other “uncontrollables” reflect in the bottle—and that a growing number of curious drinkers are eager to compare and contrast these year-over-year differences.

“We started treating the varieties like grapes,” explains Christian Gylche, president of Karlsson’s vodka. “If we separated them, would they taste different?” Of course, distillation can strip out flavor, so Gylche’s strategy was to distill only once (by comparison, most “premium vodkas” are distilled four to six times, and it’s not unusual to see vodkas distilled 16 times, 30 times, or more in the quest for absolute neutrality). “The idea was to take a delicate raw material, distill it carefully and preserve the natural flavor.”

Another producer—Poland’s Vestal Vodka, a Polish vodka (tentatively expected to be available to U.S. consumers in fall 2014), also emphasizes vintage-dated bottles and leans heavily on wine comparisons in its marketing materials.

“Just as top class wine is a product of a vineyard, quality vodka starts in the field,” Vestal asserts. “Like grapes, there are literally hundreds of different kinds of potatoes. Each has its own characteristics…If we blend, as we occasionally do, it’s for the same reason winemakers in Bordeaux blend Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to produce some of the world’s greatest wines—the sum is greater than the parts.”

In some ways, it’s ironic that vodka is a leader in embracing the variability that raw materials can bring, as it has long been seen as the king of industrialized booze. Thus, when it comes to the spirit, it’s difficult to get people to think about it as anything even mildly artisan, let alone expressive of terroir.

However, liqueurs and un-aged distillates like vodka can showcase best the impact of raw materials—a fact some equate to the growing understanding of spirits such as mezcal and rhum agricole, which are noted for their connection to the earth and emphasis on their raw materials. (In particular, vintage-dated mezcal is starting to gain attention in the U.S., and people are starting to care about single-varietal, single-estate agave—not unlike those single potato varietals used for vodka.)

That said, vodka doesn’t stand quite alone in the quest. Some brandy categories (armagnac, calvados) have also historically released single-year, vintage-dated bottlings (cognac, by comparison, is usually a blend of age ranges). Even though it’s relatively easy to scoop up a bottle labeled with a special birthday or anniversary year, oddly, they seem to be largely off the radar screen of U.S. collectors.

Instead, the big kahuna is whiskey.

Blame Scotch for the fast-rising interest in vintage-dated whiskies, says Mark Brown, CEO at Buffalo Trace, which has made a reputation out of micro-experimentation (including year-dated bourbons and ryes). While Scotch producers have long released year-dated bottlings (most on an occasional basis to highlight a spectacular cask), it’s a newer tradition among American whiskey distillers. And U.S. collectors seem to be particularly fervent about certain years (just try to get your hands on a 2001 vintage of Sazerac 18-year-old rye).

“I absolutely believe you’ll see more vintages out of American whiskey makers,” says Brown. “Vintage dating has legitimacy.” Adding that date signals limited-edition status, moving a spirits bottle from commodity to collectible.

However, vintage-dated bottlings still represent a small segment of the overall spirits markets. “American consumers are quite taken with consistency,” Brown observes. As a result, the majority of mass-market producers have a “fear of age statements.”

Compared to un-aged spirits (like vodka), I’ve yet to see vintage-dated white dog. When it comes to whiskey, it’s all about the barrel.

Although Brown says, “I’ve had Master Distillers come in and say, we’ve just distilled an exceptional batch,” still, he readily admits that the barrel’s impact trumps all else. Brown estimates that a full 50% of whiskey variability is from the barrel, with just 25% due to the mash bill and distillation, and the remaining 25% attributed to “atmospherics,” which mostly pertains to where the whiskey aged (which warehouse, which floor) and the conditions around the barrel (temperature, humidity, etc.).

Eventually, the precious brown liquid is put in the bottle. And here is where Brown points to an important strike against the “wine-ification” of whiskey: “whiskey doesn’t improve in the bottle—unlike, say, Bordeaux.” (My own experience is that whiskey seems to hold up better than most spirits when left in the bottle for decades, whereas gin becomes flaccid and antique liqueurs can turn downright awful.)

So why do consumers care so much? Steve Zeller, who blogs about whiskey at Smoky Beast, collects the Old Forester Birthday Bourbons (released once a year, on Sept. 2, the birthdate of Old Forester founder George Garvin Brown) and owns nearly a decade’s worth of the bottlings. To him, it’s partly the thrill of the chase, he admits, as well as the opportunity to taste first-hand how bottlings have evolved.

“Whiskey that tags itself with a year or a vintage makes itself that much more collectible,” he says.

But will we ever see a broader spectrum of consumers anticipate single-year spirits the way they do annual wine releases? It looks increasingly possible, though it’s likely to remain a relatively small segment of the market.

Still, it’s heartening to know that a growing number of spirits makers are willing to showcase how the vagaries of agriculture and weather and other “uncontrollables” reflect in the bottle—and that a growing number of curious drinkers are eager to compare and contrast these year-over-year differences. What it signals is more important than market share:  it points to a willingness to embrace the earth-bound nature of spirits—as we do with wine—rather than the impulse to distill their character away.

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